The Blog

Russia's Regression

Now a crackdown on the British Council.

11:00 PM, Jan 30, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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IT DOESN'T TAKE an Anglophile to appreciate the English way with understatement, particularly at moments of high tension or pique. Readers of the Moscow Times got a slight taste of this national characteristic last Friday, when Mr. Giles Cattermole, a resident of Sonning-on-Thames, wrote in to express his discomfiture at the current state of British-Russian relations:

So Andrei Lugovoi allegedly assassinated Alexander Litvinenko. And that's fine--he becomes a hero, gets elected to the State Duma and is appointed second head of the LDPR party list. He also gets asked if he will run for president.

Vitaly Kaloyev, the architect from the Caucasus region of North Ossetia, assassinates Peter Nielsen, a Swiss-based air-traffic controller, and Kaloyev gets a senior government job in his hometown.

Now, just what message about Russian society and morals does that send?

You couldn't have asked it more politely yourself.

Mr. Cattermole is referring to the plight of the British Council, which in the middle of this month, was forced to close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg at the behest of Vladimir Putin's Foreign Ministry. Arbitrary though the Kremlin typically is when intimidating bodies foreign and domestic, there was actually a logical warp and woof to this affair. Russia has for months refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, wanted by Scotland Yard for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB agent turned fierce Putin critic who was irradiated in London in 2006. (Extradition is against the Russian constitution, although Lugovoi's recent election to the State Duma has also granted him immunity from internal prosecution, to say nothing of the "message" that minor farce of December's parliamentary elections delivered.) Britain responded by expelling four Russian diplomats last July. The Council crackdown is thus the third demarché in an ugly bilateral standoff that has every Western media outlet invoking the Cold War.

And as during that twilight struggle, many have resorted to moral equivalence and blaming both sides for their intransigence, despite the fact that only one country has now ventured beyond the realm of political brinkmanship and taken to hounding and shuttering a strictly cultural institution.

The British Council was created in 1934 under monarchial patronage to serve as a kind of roving language-and-ideas outpost of parliamentary democracy. With a strong presence in the Middle East and Latin America, it has endeavored--and I quote from its website -to "support British Institutes and societies and English schools in other countries, recruitment of university lecturers, support to students and English teachers, books and periodicals for libraries, lecture tours, music performances and art exhibitions." Though sponsored by the Foreign Office and often domiciled abroad on the premises of the British consulate, the Council operates as an independent charity with its own chairman and board of directors. That hardly makes it neutral in its promulgation of "British" values--the Council's founder Sir Reginald Leeper advocated unashamedly "cultural propaganda" to combat fascism, and during World War II it was even suggested that the organization be absorbed into the nascent Ministry of Information. The idea was squelched in favor of continued independence. At once above politics and yet ever at the mercy of it, the Council was banished from a war-ravaged continent in the middle of the century, though still kept up its charter by establishing National and Allied Centers in London that catered to refugees from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway and France.

Leave it to the British to be self-critical, if not slightly self-loathing, about one of their most recognizable totems of internationalism. Also on the Council's website is a small essay entitled, "Propaganda?," written by a professor of American Studies, Nicholas J. Cull, who examines the organization's evolving raison d'etre: "During the Cold War the British Council maintained its propaganda value and developed an important double function. It provided a point of contact with western ideas in the non-aligned world and, when thaws permitted, the Eastern Bloc. More than this, the British Council provided a view of the West distinct from that presented by the United States and its equivalent operation: the United States Information Agency; building a sense of the diversity of western culture."